Dénes Várjon: De la nuit (ECM New Series 2521)

De la nuit.jpg

Dénes Várjon
De la nuit

Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 31, 2018

He searched under the bed, around the fireplace,
in the chest: but he found no one.
And he could not understand how the spirit had crept in—
and how he had escaped again.
–E.T.A. Hoffmann, Night Pieces

Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, who last regaled ECM listeners on 2012’s Precipitando, returns with another program of three culturally disparate composers united by the immaterial. Although the blood running through the veins of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) may be genetically dissimilar, in each we find arbitrations of music that, according to the booklet essay by Jürg Stenzl, “far transcended the confines of their time.” The untethered quality of these compositions, each chosen with utmost attention to detail, by virtue of their literary angles interlock in organic conversation. And in rendering them, ECM has found an unparalleled interpreter.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op. 12 of 1837 are comprised of transfixing poetry. In these “character pieces,” linked explicitly to the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul, Schumann eschews sonata form in favor of an emotional mosaic that abides by its own logic. Its foundations support a lighthouse for listeners lost at sea. From the dramatic (Aufschwung and In der Nacht) and tenderly inquisitive (Warum?) to the mythic (Fabel) and dreamlike (Traumes Wirren), Schumann shines his light through one incredible prism after another until, coming to rest after the robust Ende vom Lied, Várjon, too, breathes the sigh of a journeyman closing his eyes with success.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (1908), inspired by a prose-poetry collection of the same name by Aloysius Bertrand, spins those latter impulses into a web of vivid imagery. The lambent Ondine evokes the water sprite of the same name, whose attempts at seduction follow fountain-like trajectories before rejection sends her reeling into the background. Le Gibet (Gallows) is meant to illustrate the body of a hanged man. Morbid yet beautiful, its suspensions take on new meaning. Scarbo returns to folklore in its depiction of the eponymous dwarf, said to haunt nightmares. The sensation of running desperately through a forest of which every tree is a hand tearing at our clothes makes this one of the most astonishing renditions I’ve ever heard of this piece.

The title of Bartók’sSzabadban(1926) means “Out of Doors,” and provides respite in the pastoral truths of its canvas. Some of its many influences include folk songs in the darkly percussive first movement and the harpsichord music of Couperin in the third. Throughout, a sense of comfort is always one step removed, locked in step with the march of a history that has all but left these jewels behind. Like the final movement, each scene is totally committed to its own unfolding, until we’re ready to work it back into shape as a promise to return.

Schumann: The Violin Sonatas (ECM New Series 2047)


Robert Schumann
The Violin Sonatas

Carolin Widmann violin
Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded August 2007 at Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Maybe Schumann, as opposed to so many other composers, really is the one whose black dots on white paper represent the least that is actually to be said.”
–Carolin Widmann

Musicologists and historians alike often paint Robert Schumann as a tragic figure. The mental degeneration of this prominent composer has become a prototypical example of the genius in decline and of the ineffability of humanity’s most creative energies. Admittedly, I have been guilty of this characterization myself. But when we hear a recording like this, all that myth-making goes straight out the window. These sonatas are among Schumann’s final works, the first two having been written in 1851 and the third in 1853, and are no less engaging for it.

Sonate Nr. 1 für Pianoforte und Violine in a-Moll, op.105
This is an absolutely glorious sonata. The piano parts are alive with ideas and seem to come in waves. The second movement is one of Schumann’s most questioning, cautiously approaching the knowledge it seeks before growing into confidence. The third movement catches us almost unawares with its colorful changes in rhythm and atmosphere. This is the most eclectic portion of the sonata, a beautifully synchronized braid of instrumental forces. After the dainty, lively introduction, suspicions loom threateningly over the finale’s exuberant communion until they crumble into piles of declamatory dust. Only then do we realize the goal no longer means anything, now that it’s unobstructed.

Sonate Nr. 3 für Violine und Pianoforte in a-Moll, WoO 2
Schumann’s third sonata was withheld by his wife Clara for years before it was ever heard. Its central position in the album’s program isn’t an apology, but a gesture perhaps meant to ensure that it be taken seriously. The opening piano thumps like a nervous heartbeat. Its balance is so fine that one false move could easily upset it, but the virtuosity of our duo keeps it perfectly intact, so that we may admire it from every angle and with every assurance of safety. The second movement evolves in retrograde motion to an arousing end, after which the piano’s bass note lingers beyond the violin’s curtailed exultation. The third movement climbs determinedly, aware of its own lightness, its many open paths. The cascading pianism here renders the music into a raging river. Like a salmon swimming upstream, the violin must struggle with all its might to get to where it’s going. Because its life is determined by that very struggle, it relies solely on the challenge of the current.

Sonate Nr. 2 für Violine und Pianoforte in d-Moll, op. 121
Also known as the “Grand Sonata,” Schumann’s second shows off its complex unity at every turn. The opening movement is an epic journey, finding its resolution no fewer than three times before bowing out, while the sonata’s remainder combs through the populous landscape of human interaction. The lesson: in agreement there is no unity, but only the semblance of disparate voices blending into one, whereas true unity is achieved in keeping those voices separate, sharing the awareness of an internal bond that can never be made externally aware.

Widmann and Várjon both see much in the way of modern sensibilities in these sonatas, bringing their progressive approach to every nuance therein. Their dynamic control is so effortlessly realized, they never manage to lose the energetic thread that binds them, even in the quietest moments. Widmann intentionally plays on open strings whenever possible, allowing the rich sonority of her instrument to ring through with an almost harsh beauty, while Várjon take full advantage of the studio’s acoustics to further flesh out the piano’s inherent resonance. If these sonatas are pieces of a larger puzzle, then these two fabulous musicians have foregone the corner pieces and worked their way from the center to the margins.